Lori Lamson and her two daughters made a spur-of-the-moment decision Friday afternoon. Knowing the University of Massachusetts men's hockey team was playing for the national championship, they bought tickets, got in the car and drove 6½ hours Saturday morning from Southington, Conn., to Buffalo to watch the Minutemen face Minnesota Duluth.
“The stars aligned,” Lamson said as she and her daughters stood outside KeyBank Center, swathed in burgundy and white UMass sweatshirts and scarves. “If UMass was playing in driving distance, eight hours or less, we were going.”
The Lamsons bought tickets through VividSeats.com, an online secondary-market ticket broker, and were surprised by the number of seating options for a national championship game.
“There were a lot left, and I was surprised by that,” Lamson said. “But to me, it seemed it would be natural to have a Frozen Four in Buffalo, given that it’s right on the Canadian border.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Lamsons were able to get tickets so easily. Attendance for both the national semifinals and the national championship game saw significant decreases for the Frozen Four.
The two-game national semifinal session Thursday at KeyBank Center had an announced attendance of 13,051, the lowest attendance for an NCAA Division I men’s hockey semifinal since 2000. The national championship game Saturday night drew an announced 13,624 – about 600 more than the semifinal, but well less than the venue's hockey capacity of 19,070. Attendance for the title game was the least since 2001.
It also was a significant drop from the last time Buffalo hosted a Frozen Four. The NCAA lists attendance for the 2003 tournament at the building then known as HSBC Arena at 18,535 for the first semifinal, 18,551 for the second semifinal and 18,659 for the national championship game between Minnesota and New Hampshire. Tickets for the 2003 Frozen Four in Buffalo also sold out more than a year in advance.
The previous Frozen Four in Buffalo also might have benefited from having Cornell, which is less than a three-hour drive from Buffalo.
“We haven’t dove into all the reasons that might have impacted attendance yet,” Steve Metcalf, the NCAA’s Division I hockey committee chairman and deputy director of athletics at the University of New Hampshire, said Saturday, prior to the national championship game. “I think it’s probably due to a combination of different things. Everyone would have loved to see more people come to the games.”
By the start of the first semifinal Thursday between Providence and Minnesota Duluth, chunks of blue seats inside KeyBank Center were empty, though those slowly filled as the two games progressed.
Attendance on Saturday remained spotty, and empty sections of blue seats remained, minutes before the start of the national championship game.
— Rachel Lenzi (@rachelmlenzi) April 14, 2019
Empty seats at the Frozen Four isn’t a problem isolated to Buffalo. There were empty seats two years ago at the Frozen Four at the United Center in Chicago, and a few empty seats last spring in the national semifinals at Xcel Center in St. Paul, especially surprising considering the event was held in the hockey-crazy state of Minnesota.
Larry Haag has attended multiple Frozen Fours across the country, and made a point to attend the event in Buffalo, an hour’s drive from his home in Rochester. He was disappointed in seeing the noticeably empty sections in KeyBank Center.
“It’s pretty empty, and sometimes, that depends on the teams that get into the Frozen Four, and where it’s at,” Haag said. “But it’s been rare, in my experiences here, to see it like this. There’s been empty seats, but not empty sections.”
His sister, Dona Haag, traveled from her home in Tampa to attend the Frozen Four, and has attended Frozen Fours in Boston and in Tampa. Buffalo, she said, was a noticeably different atmosphere.
“In Boston in 2015, Boston University and Providence played, and it was so loud, it felt like the roof was about to blow off,” she said. “Even in Tampa, it was a great atmosphere. But I didn’t expect this.”
The attendance struggles follow on the heels of last year's World Junior Championships, in which average attendance at KeyBank Center was around 5,000. The overall average for the event was nearly 11,000, thanks to 44,592 who attended the outdoor game between the U.S. and Canada at New Era Field. However, officials said they were pleased that the event drew more than 200,000 total spectators, among the top 10 for a World Juniors.
When Buffalo was awarded the 2019 Frozen Four two years ago, former Buffalo Bills and Sabres executive Russ Brandon told reporters that part of Pegula Sports and Entertainment's mission was to continue to advance Buffalo as a destination for major sporting events that would have an impact on the region.
“The Frozen Four, coming on the heels of the NHL Draft, NHL Combine and World Juniors, is another premier event that will showcase our city as the leading hockey market it has become," Brandon said.
The development of downtown hotels and the opening of The Rinks at Harborcenter helped with Buffalo’s bid for the Frozen Four. It was built, and the fans came, but not as many as some anticipated.
Part of that may have been because of the cost, and the fact that the NCAA sold tickets as packages for all three games until recent weeks, when single-session tickets could be purchased. On Friday, NCAA.com listed tickets for the national championship game that ranged from $120 to $240.
While the Frozen Four’s championship-game attendance was slightly higher than the national semifinal, tickets for the national championship game fluctuated on the secondary market Saturday afternoon. A ticket to the Frozen Four started at $75 and went as high as $249 on StubHub.com. About 2½ hours before the game, tickets in section 327 at KeyBank Center started at $60, and topped out a $209.88 for a ticket in a seat behind a goal.
— Rachel Lenzi (@rachelmlenzi) April 13, 2019
Also, having college hockey teams with fan bases that don’t travel the way Minnesota, Notre Dame or North Dakota do in the Frozen Four might not have helped, either.
Little Caesars Arena in Detroit will host the 2020 Frozen Four, PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh will host the 2021 Frozen Four and TD Garden in Boston will host the 2022 Frozen Four. Sites for the 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026 Frozen Fours are expected to be announced in October.
Could Metcalf and the NCAA hockey committee see Buffalo hosting another Frozen Four?
“As far as I’m concerned, the answer is yes,” Metcalf said.
“The community, the Sabres, and everybody, from the Pegulas on down to the organization – and I don’t have to tell you how supportive the Pegulas have been of college hockey. They’ve made this site a much better site than it was 16 years ago, the last time Buffalo hosted.”
But if the numbers were any indication, not many got to see it.
Thursday’s announced semifinal attendance at KeyBank Center of 13,051 was a drop of nearly 5,000 attendees from the 2018 Frozen Four semifinals in St. Paul, Minn., and a drop of more than 6,000 attendees from the 2017 Frozen Four semifinals in Chicago.
An NHL venue has hosted the Frozen Four every year since 2007, except for 2010, when Ford Field in Detroit hosted the Frozen Four.
While the NCAA lists near-capacity crowds for each venue in its record books, of the 12 host venues since 2007, only four have had sellouts for the semifinals (St. Louis in 2007, Denver in 2008, Washington in 2009, and St. Paul in 2011). Only five have had sellouts for the national championship game: St. Louis in 2007, Denver in 2009, Washington in 2009 and St. Paul in 2011 and 2018.
From 2007 to 2015, the semifinals were considered one session. Attendance figures are from NCAA financial reports.